St. Francis Farm
Winter Perspective by Lorraine
The months since the last newsletter have been the longed for slow time. We stacked up the beds in the second floor dorm and made again an indoor play place for the children to use when it is too cold or wet to play outside. We spent most of a week looking back at the year just finished and ahead at 2006, trying to see the problems and accomplishments and recurring patterns in our life and work. Anita was back from Alabama for Christmas with her family and so there was sledding and singing and praying together with her and with Melinda before she left for her internship in Wisconsin. Somehow with all we saved to do in it, the slow time has felt rather full.
We’ve seen clearly that we need more help to do all this work. Melinda plans to join us this summer when she returns from Wisconsin. We’ve asked some of the people who share the vegetables from the garden in the summers to share the work as well and found them eager to do so. We’ll have to go pick people up and bring them to the farm, but then they can enjoy the pond and the paths and help in the garden as well. We’ve contacted people who help volunteers find placements in the US and abroad and signed up the farm as a work site. And we hope that some of the churches and schools that have put together groups and come to help for a day or a weekend in the past will be back. St. John’s High School will be sending students for their spring break week in April and we’re planning to do rock picking, woodcutting, path building and other heavy jobs with them.
In addition to finding help for the work here on the farm, we continue to build connections with others to cooperate on work in the community. We met recently with folks from Unity Acres to plan for the coming season and the work we share with them around their cattle and haying. Catholic Charities continues to have more children referred to their respite program from this area, and lately when they call us about a new child they often say that some other social worker has recommended that the child start coming to the farm. The school now buses one boy here after school a couple days a week, and we’ve found the school staff helpful as we’ve sought to better understand and serve the children we see regularly. And from the school, Catholic Charities, and Rural & Migrant Ministry (RMMOC) we’ve met others who share our concerns about the families living at Scotch Grove. (See Scotch Grove below)
While some problems are too big for us to tackle alone, we see more clearly all the time the importance of the little things we can do. We struggle to explain our work to the IRS simply because it is so little. Eating a meal together with the children during their weekly visits to the farm is important. It isn’t always easy because some of the kids aren’t used to sitting at a table for a family meal and the food isn’t always familiar to them. These are not our most relaxed meals. The youngest one still spills a lot and one boy tells the others not to talk, just to eat and another says he doesn’t need a napkin—he has a sleeve. For a while there were three boys each Saturday lunch and Melinda who had joined us to give the boys lessons on the keyboard. They all like homemade bread and sometimes help make it, the boy who is reported not to eat anything now hopes lunch is chili or enchiladas. and a couple of boys really like goat milk. The older boys like to build things with Zach and the one in Kindergarten often asks me to read to him. Walking the woods path or sledding works well for the ADHD boys and they like to throw sticks in the stream and run along the banks to watch their progress. Little things.
We’ve finished some of the big things—incorporation and tax exempt status, the exterior renovations on the house. We’ve finally cleaned out all the back rooms and storage spaces in both the barn and the house so that we know what is here and sometimes even know where to find things. We have games and books and toys appropriate to a wide variety of ages and interests so that we’re well prepared when a new child comes. The greenhouse is working well and we’ve set the limits of the garden for now and the beds and paths are well established. The new goat we bought in August is carrying kids which should be born in May so perhaps we’ve figured out breeding goats. We know a lot more about haying and keeping equipment running than we did a few years ago and the pasture is in better shape than at any time since our arrival.
There is still so much to do. Recently Mike Farrell, a forester with Cornell, visited and walked part of the woods with us. He looked at the red pine plantation with Zach and gave him advice about thinning it. (I already have ideas about using some of the logs to build play spaces for children.) Mike was also excited about the possibilities of our maple stands as sugar bush. He is going to be back in the spring to mark trees for Zach to cut for firewood to allow other trees to grow faster. He advised us not to give up on our shitake logs which haven’t fruited yet after 11 months and talked of the potential we have for growing lots of mushrooms. We’ve also contacted the Franciscan Ecology Center in Syracuse and someone from there will be visiting the farm in the spring to look at the large picture of our care and use of the land that makes up the farm.
The potential is sometimes overwhelming, all the possible things that could be done with the land, with our time and energy. The new director of RMMOC wants to work with children and youth at Scotch Grove and in the surrounding area. She wants to use the RMMOC facility and also to bring groups to the farm. We met early in February and will meet again in March with a psychiatrist who is helping us look at the mental health issues that arise in our work and how to coordinate better with area mental health workers, providing access to the farm for those who would benefit from recreational and volunteer opportunities and providing access to professional help when a crisis arises at the farm. From correspondence received from past visitors, we are reminded of the potential for change and growth when young people visit the farm. From the conversations with leaders who want to bring groups but can’t find the time or can’t find a time when enough young people are free to come we know that life is getting busier each year for many in the “real world”. We are trying to figure out how to continue the mission of sharing this life with groups.
As I write this it is snowing and blowing, but we’ve already seen a bluebird and by the time you read this it will be nearly spring. The Spanish Apostolate Lenten retreat is the second weekend in March and then the “slow time’ is over. As we move into the busier seasons feedback and ideas, prayers and visits, and help with the work are gratefully appreciated.
Discerning the Journey by Anita Kurowski
In my journey, I have had to grapple with some fundamental questions: Who is God? Who am I? Who are all of us, as a people? Where are we going? What does God ask of me? How is God calling me to be my truest and best self, for my own sake, and for the sake of all creation? How shall I respond? How can I transcend illusion and reach reality? Is it even possible?
I am 23 and I have done many of the predictable things--passed through childhood and adolescence, gone to college, graduated, and now gone to work. But these surface stages are really unimportant compared with the way God is leading me through a story that is always unfolding. I went off to college with all the love my family had poured into me, a hunger for knowledge, and the excitement of that privileged opportunity. I also went with desires to know more of God, to be a force of good in the world, to find joy in my future work, and to always be acquiring a deeper wisdom.
During my first year I discovered more about myself through my interactions with new friends and discovered the wealth of spiritual truth to be found in non-Christian religions through some of my courses. After participating in the Sisters of St. Joseph’s volunteer corps a few times, I was invited to live in community with a house of four Sisters. During my stay with the Sisters, I began to learn about community life and the charism of the Sisters of St. Joseph--cultivation of the relationships of neighbor to neighbor and neighbor to God. I also learned about the freedom of simplicity, the discipline of regular prayer (through many failed attempts), and the practice of present moment mindfulness. The Sisters and the Social Justice Group that I was involved with on campus gave me a much greater awareness of our world’s many social injustices and the subsequent responsibility to work for justice and peace. I began to see my future not in terms of job but of vocation, invoking the idea of service to God and neighbors, rather than simply making money for my own uses. As I grew anxious to know what my service was to be, one Sister told me that “God’s desire for you is also your deepest desire.”
During the transition from college to work, I encountered St. Francis Farm and some spiritual mile markers and forks in the road that I would never have found otherwise. I met people who were “being the change they wished to see” in the world, as Gandhi has said. Their counter-cultural lifestyle is like a pebble dropped into a pond, sending ripples of healing and awareness over a self-destructing society. I hope and believe that I am becoming one of the ripples.
One of the greatest gifts the Farm gave me was Silence derived from the absence of unnecessary or harmful technology. During my ministry as a music teacher, I have already encountered so many children over-stimulated by technology and starved for peace and stability. Though I have not been as bombarded as these children, I began to feel the sap of creativity awakening and running through me in the absence of passive entertainment, stimulation, and information. At the Farm I also shared in Silence as a form of prayer. This led to understanding myself better, learning to identify the many voices and messages from without and within, cultivating peace and mindfulness, and preparing an emptiness to recognize God’s presence and voice.
Last summer a group of us met at the farm to read a book together about Discernment. As we gathered regularly for prayer and discussion about it, I began to discern what sort of ministry God wished for me, using the totality of my present being and the specific skills of a music teacher. With the help of the prayers, listening ears, and guiding questions of the others, I began to see that I desire to use music as a way of bringing people together and building community. I began to realize that in many ways, the public school system works against real learning. If I really hoped people would learn something with my help, I would either have to work for change in the public schools, work outside the public schools, or do both, somehow.
All summer long I applied and interviewed for jobs, but as fall approached, I still didn’t have one. Then a Sister of St. Joseph called me from her ministry site in Pine Apple, Alabama. I had visited this mission and seen their Learning Center while living with the Sisters in Rochester. Education in Alabama is in dire straits, due to widespread poverty, lack of transportation, racism, and the instability of families, among other reasons. When Sister Nancy called and invited me to come work in Pine Apple, I wasn’t sure how to respond at first. I knew that I ‘d miss New York, my family, and my friends. I wondered if this would change my chances for an eventual job in New York. Also I was going through a personal struggle that made it hard for me to think of going so far away. However, Lorraine, Joanna, and Zachary helped me sort through my fears and be free to make a choice. I came to recognize this opportunity as an answer to my prayers of discernment. They helped me recognize God’svoice. Now, I have been working in Pine Apple since September. I have enjoyed working outside the public school system and the freedom to give the children what they really need rather than fit them into the molds of tests and state standards. In the mornings, I help teach Pre-School, transporting children to and from school, teaching, feeding them, cleaning and organizing the facility, communicating with parents, and supporting the other teachers in any way I can. In the afternoons, I teach children of different age levels, from first to sixth grade. Sister Nancy and I provide enrichment activities in Language, Math, Music, Art, Computer, and Cooking (as well as other things we discover that the children really need or want). We also transport these children to and from the Learning Center.
I have learned so much already from being here. I have had the opportunity to work at the Adult Day Care sharing time for music and encountering some of the music from the culture of the South. On Fridays, I help a youth group of children “at risk,” as they attempt to sing as a choir and perform as a gift for the community, in places such as churches, hospitals, and nursing homes. I have met two women who have organized many good things for the benefit of their communities, simply because they lived through hardships and wished to respond with healing action. I have met with a few musicians who are teaching me to make music with more freedom and interaction within a group. They have also taught me more music “of the people.” Each day I come face to face with the systemic diseases slowly destroying one of the poorest counties in the United States. I have also met people with great resilience, hope, and potential. I can only hope to support them in any way that I can.
It is amazing to me to step back and reflect on where I am, what I am doing, what I believe, how I act, and what I am becoming each moment of every day. Even though I am far away, the people at the Farm have given me support and accountability, which together we had learned are so necessary for any ministry. Their encouragement and soul-searching questions help me to navigate the never-ending task of discernment, as I desire to continue walking with God. There may be times when, in the face of the mystery of God, I lose my trust. But when I look at how God fits the whole universe together, even in the pieces, strands, and seeming coincidences of my own life, I see the pattern of Creation at work, and I know that I have been guided. It was no mistake that I crossed paths with St. Francis Farm, even at the particular time that it initially happened. I thank Lorraine, Joanna, and Zachary for being the instruments of God. I thank God for singing the Song, through all of us.
Instead of a Wish List by Lorraine
Three of us live here to take care of the farm and carry out its mission so when anyone calls or visits we are the obvious people on whom the work depends. But others came before us to purchase the farm and establish the ministries that have been carried out in this place. In the present we could not do this work alone. We rely on so many people—some we know and some we’ve never met—to support the farm. Support may be financial or spiritual or physical and all of it is vital to the carrying out of the mission.
No one at the farm receives wages or stipend, we cut our firewood and grow as much as our own food as possible. Zach uses junk he finds here or at Unity Acres to build a bike trailer and a wood wagon and he bikes whenever possible to save fuel. But we still need money for some things and are dependent on the individuals and churches and other groups that provide financial support. When we first arrived we had to borrow money to pay taxes and had other financial worries, but we have found ways to economize and people have been generous and faithful in their support over the years and the financial worries have diminished. For this we are very thankful.
We also receive material assistance in various forms. Supporters have responded to the wish list requests related to children. This winter we had jackets and boots, mittens and hats, warm socks and scarves to share with those in need. We have books and art supplies to use here and to take to Scotch Grove for use there. We receive bikes and building materials and tools that are useful in our work. And people come and help us can or clean or garden or cut wood or work on the house.
Spiritual support is at the heart of the farm. I often say that we would have given up in the first months if it hadn’t been for the time we spend in prayer and the prayers others offer for the farm and its work. Sometimes we get lonely accompanying those in poverty or grief or pain. We can feel overwhelmed and inadequate. When visitors join us for prayer and song and discernment they provide spiritual support that gives us courage to continue.
We continue to depend on financial and spiritual support to carry on the work of the farm, and for the next few months we especially need extra hands to work with us on the thousand and one things that need to be done. One of the blessings of the farm is that anyone can help because there are so many different jobs requiring different skill or strength or time. Joanna will be starting seeds in the greenhouse and preparing and planting the garden, tending goats. Zachary will be continuing to work on the house, cutting firewood, thinning the red pine plantation, rebuilding the well house, reinforcing the woodshed and getting equipment ready for haying. I will be cleaning and working on the flower gardens and putting out nest boxes We want to extend the trail system started last year and to put up some swings or benches along the way. We want to build some play structures from the pine logs we get from the thinning. We’d like to redo the stonework around the big rock in front of the barn, and add to the stone paved area in the memorial garden, and repair the stone wall by the pond. Helpers are welcome to join us when and where they are able.
People that come to the farm should come because they want to work. That is to be understood. They must see the necessity and beauty of the work and do it. They must not be told. It must be voluntary. They are not working for their board and bed. They are working as a free contribution to the farming commune.
--Peter Maurin, quoted in Peter Maurin: Apostle to the World by Dorothy Day and Francis J. Sicius
Maintenance by Zachary
Because this winter has been milder than normal we have not had many requests for help with shoveling roofs and other winter jobs that we often do for elders at their homes. We had a power outage for 28 hours when it was very cold outside, and we were very glad to have the generator. Without it I think we would have had frozen pipes in the barn, and also in the well house. The pressure switch in the well house failed during that outage, and to run the pump it was necessary to go and turn it on manually with a screwdriver. Fortunately our friendly repairman was able to come on a Sunday and put in a new one, so we were only without normal water service for 48 hours or so.
One of my hopes for the farm is that we can become less dependent on oil and other outside energy sources for economic and ecological reasons. In December I finally built the bicycle trailer which I have been planning for some time, and on a couple of mild days in January I took it to the spring where we get our drinking water. The jugs we use hold a total of 25 gallons, for a weight of 200 pounds. I was somewhat uncertain as to whether I would be able to pull that much, and whether the bicycle brakes would be adequate to stop the load on the hills in Orwell, but it worked out quite well, especially on the second trip when I had made a few changes. I plan to use the trailer to go to the spring and to the feed store in Sandy Creek, and to take vegetables to Scotch Grove in the summer. This feels to me like straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel when I consider all of the driving we still do, but I think it is a step in the right direction. I also plan to burn wood through the summer to provide hot water to the barn, rather than using the oil burner as we have previously done. We are looking into several possibilities for summer hot water heating in the long term, but burning wood can be done without needing to make any changes in the current system and will suffice as a stopgap while we decide among solar preheating, a large insulated boiler water storage tank or electric hot water heating. We have been thinking about putting up an electric wind turbine for some time now, and it seems that it might be a good option for the farm, because of the fairly strong winds we have here. There is a fairly large initial cost to set up a wind turbine, but it would pay for itself over time, and New York has a quite good rebate program for small wind turbine customers.
The interior of the farmhouse is still far from finished, but progress has been made. I did not start work over there until the beginning of February, and some things have taken longer than I had hoped. An electrician has come and helped run new wiring, and now all of the new wires that run through the walls have been fed and are waiting to be connected, and the basement is all hooked up. The remaining work on the wiring I can do myself, and I hope to have it done soon. Some of the plaster repair and trim board installation has been done, but much more still remains. I have moved the basement stairs so that they are under the main stairway, and we will have room for a large walk-in closet where they used to be. As much as possible of the ductwork from the furnace which used to be in the basement has been removed and given away to someone who can use it. We don’t plan to put in a new furnace, and if we ever do we have been told that the ducts were oversized and therefore not efficient.
In the barn I have begun putting in more built-in cupboards along the staircases. These have already made storage easier, and I expect they will continue to do so as more of them are made ready for use. There are several hollow spaces around the stairs of varying sizes that were walled off when the barn was converted, but can be used if they are made accessible with doors. One of the children whom we see through Catholic Charities has been helping with the cupboards. He seems to find the work interesting, and to be learning from it.
Aside from the usual annual jobs we will be painting the trim on the farmhouse, rebuilding the front porch and replacing a couple of pieces of the roof, and replacing the siding on the ends of the barn with T-111 so that they do not leak. We also need to replace a couple of rotted poles in the pole barn, expand the goat exercise yard and rebuild the fence, clean up the debris of the other pole barn across the road, which fell over in a wind in late December, and rebuild the deck of the hay wagon, which was in the barn at the time. I do not know if we will be able to get all of these things done, but I am sure that what is really needed will be accomplished.
Scotch Grove by Joanna
Shortly after our last newsletter people from Catholic Charities and the Rural and Migrant Ministry of Oswego County (RMMOC), my mother and I went to Scotch Grove to meet with some tenants and see what we might be able to do for the children in the complex. I knew that social-service groups had planned on-site programs and been frustrated by the wariness and lack of participation that they encountered. I also knew that some of the tenants had a talent for working with kids and were trusted by their neighbors, and I hoped that we could work together, share resources and build trust. I was excited by the possibilities, but I feared that if the meeting didn’t go well both tenants and social workers would have their fears reinforced and be less willing to work together in the future.
I thought I had come prepared to facilitate the meeting and draw people out. I expected the tenants to be nervous and quiet. I arrived early and found the woman I had counted on to bring people together discouraged and reluctant to attend. But she came anyway and four other women joined her. Suddenly they were all speaking at once--voicing complaints, floating ideas, describing current cooperation and brainstorming possibilities. I was surprised and lost hold of my plan, and the meeting unfolded without my direction. They complained of mold in the walls, repairs done late or omitted, quarrels with neighboring homeowners. They raised concerns about the young children who have no safe space for outdoor play, and the teenagers who have few constructive activities to engage their energy. They also described the strength of their community. One woman reads letters and legal papers for neighbors who can’t read. One is often home to watch neighbors’ children and engages them in constructive projects even in a very small and crowded space. One has a telephone and takes messages for neighbors who don’t. One participant has mental disabilities, and her neighbors listened considerately to her, incorporating her suggestions when they could and gently setting aside what didn’t make sense.
Tenants and visitors volunteered to help with children’s gatherings. Some were willing to lead craft projects, others to read or organize games, others to help as needed in keeping children constructively engaged. A plan emerged to begin during the February school vacation. We parted enthusiastic about the next steps. Tenants recruited children and adult helpers and planned activities; I brought art and craft supplies that people have given to the farm; other interested outsiders made fliers, helped plan activities and offered to bring snacks. I thought that in this newsletter I’d give a glowing report about the first meetings of the Scotch Grove children’s group.
I tried to follow up on housing and safety concerns with local agencies, but I ran into dead ends and became frustrated. Then I heard that the complex would be discussed at a village meeting. I found concerned people there from the school, RMMOC and the Health Center. Health and fire hazards were described and code enforcement discussed. Much was said about the need to provide opportunities for constructive work and recreation for all the tenants, especially the kids. Several people had had concerns and worked on small pieces of the problem for a long time. At this meeting they began to look at ways in which they could work together more effectively for the good of the Scotch Grove community as a whole. I spoke for including the tenants in this process and mentioned some of the strengths and gifts I had encountered among them. Most of the meeting time was spent on Scotch Grove. At the end there was a brief presentation by a group interested in building more upscale homes in Pulaski in order to attract ‘real leadership material’ to balance the influx of poor people. I was somewhat disturbed by the assumptions being made by the presenter, but I observed that some of the real leaders in the community had just turned out to discuss how to work for and with some of the least privileged members of the community, and perhaps make it more possible for them to take leadership. I left feeling greatly encouraged.
The next day I heard that the children’s activities planned for the February break had been cancelled. Some of the social-service providers were worried about liability issues and whether this was a good use of their professional time, but some were interested in continuing. I couldn’t get anyone at the complex by phone, so I drove down to talk with some of the tenant organizers. I found them confused and discouraged. There had been an electric surge and a couple of small fires which seemed to be caused by faulty wiring; the mold was spreading fast in the damp weather; four families
had moved away, and more were trying to get out; all those who could had made plans to get themselves and their kids away during the school break. I listened, asked if we could still try gathering kids at the RMMOC building (which had been offered by its new director, Mary Coon), heard that no one felt able to plan that at this point, and came home discouraged. I had a bad night, feeling that our time and planning had been useless and imagining what it would be like to live in those apartments and not see any way to get out.
I talked with Mary the next day, and we decided to go back to Scotch Grove to discuss what, if anything, could be done next. In the last week of February she came with me to visit in the complex for the first time. The woman we spent most of the time with was watching about 12 kids, some of whom were happily engaged in one of the projects we had planned for the break week. She talked about the interests, problems and aptitudes of some of the children and also about the difficulty of planning ahead. Some families have been threatened with losing custody of their children if they don’t move out, and others are worried and want to leave. People were interested in getting together at RMMOC over April break and coming up to the farm in summer, if they’re still in the area then.
I write and think often about the difference between running programs and having relationships, but it’s easy for me to get carried away by enthusiasm or discouragement and get stuck in the program model, attached to doing something visibly successful. When I really stop and listen, I know that isn’t what’s important. I don’t even know what to hope. If families leave Scotch Grove, they may be able to find safer housing; they will also lose their community. As long as there are tenants there, they will find ways to support one another. I need to hold my hopes lightly and be willing to accompany our friends at Scotch Grove through their joys and their struggles, as I need to be accompanied in mine.
Quotes from our reading:
Greed feeds on the continual busyness of the man-made world. Withdrawal from this busyness is necessary if one is to begin developing detachment...Detachment is freedom form the self-centering that destroys our ability to relate. --Jim Corbett, Goatwalking
Attitudes change through example rather than argument. The uncompromising attempt to live one’s highest ideals openly and constantly is the most effective social action one can take. To live in opposition to the principles one proclaims is the surest way to destroy them as social options.—Ibid
The choice is radical: between friend-enemy politics and covenant-formed religion, between conquest and communion. There is no way to choose both. --Ibid
When industrial nations go to war, civil society itself is a war machine. Any useful, productive role within a warmaking society contributes to the war effort; there is no place for non-participants, only for collaborators and resisters. --Ibid
We participate in the sin of others; we are all helping to make the kind of world that makes for war. --Dorothy Day, quoted in Peter Maurin, Apostle to the World by Dorothy Day and Francis Sicius
..The works of mercy don’t look like much. They don’t make much of a show, unless you are multiplying loaves and fishes the way Christ did. I always remember, however, that he did not keep on doing it, and they must have wanted him to.
–Dorothy Day, ibid.
ST. FRANCIS FARM
136 Wart Road
Lacona, NY 13083